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Rejuvenate Your Soul" - The Other Side of the Tsunami


After years of safety management and first aid training, our guides' immediate response to the Tsunami was to go to Patong and Khao Lok to render first aid, but within minutes of the disaster roadblocks were up to prevent looters and gawkers. Phuket's civil defense plan enlisted all hospitals and disaster units, and in under an hour, victims were in international standard emergency rooms.

Patong - Yacht Cruise Anyone Patong - The Colonel Ain't No Chicken
Patong - Seafood, Anyone

Patong - This Party Rocks

We couldn't volunteer our services or even return our guests to their hotels, so we congregated on our Phuket Town office and entertained folks with my on-line Tsunami reports. They all did the Starlight trip on the 30th and wrote us a nice email thanking us for saving their lives at the Ao Po pier and then hosting them to Thai lunch and goodies.

In less than 24 hours, the Thai military responded in widespread well-organized full force with arms open to all. I was amazed at the efficient response from both civil and military sectors. Despite reports of favoring Thai's or tourists, all reports I heard and everything I saw said the only people the military, police or other Thai aid workers favored were those in need.

Even so, our staff wanted to help, and when resorts of Khao Lak devastation poured in on the 27th, they ignored my orders and took off in the company truck. With both still cameras and my video camera in the shop (what timing!), I bought a cheap digital and took off to Khao Lak to keep my staff out of trouble and document the disaster.

The highway to Khao Lak was an endless convoy of Army trucks. They weren't going to Phuket, and they haven't left Khao Lak since. All of Phuket knew there were some fatalities in Patong and other beaches, but it could have been far worse. Surrounded by Army trucks heading north, I realized Khao Lak wasn't so lucky. They were not going to a party.

We got no further than the roadblock just in time for the Royal van to pass by. I learned a Prince died at La Flora where my friend is GM. What about Mark?

Next to the roadblock, Lam Gan Temple was an obvious nerve center. I did a walk-through and took these shots of the injured and dead arriving. "Reality Sets In" is one of my best news shots ever. How bitter-sweet. To bad any of this happened,

On the way home I decided to survey the coast from the Airport south.

Phuket Airport, December 27, 2004

The airport was a madhouse, thousands of people escaping Thailand. Tsunami victims or witnesses I understand, but this was mass exodus, almost panic.

The only folks I saw who were taking events in strike were our mini-expedition guests Anne and Sheila. I didn't know they were at the airport, and vice versa. How we met in that madhouse is beyond me.

Anne and Sheila booked their trip for Dec. 23-25. They came in mid-day on 23 and asked me to stay Christmas night in the Bay to make up the first morning. That's a 4-day budget so I normally decline such requests, but it was Christmas so I gave them the extra night in the Bay instead of going straight to hard-hit Golden Buddha Beach. They returned to the pier at 9AM on the 26th. Their van was just about to Khao Lak when the Tsunami hit. They returned to Phuket, readjusted their plans and were on their way to Cambodia.

I expected Nai Thon to be hit hard, but almost nothing happened. I put the sleepy beach on the map with my Lonely/Planet (now Globetrekker) show and it's got perfect balance, a few nice bungalows and restaurants - and some very nice suites - on a quiet and beautiful white sand beach. The only worthwhile photo was this couple urging tourists to come to unharmed Nai Harn.

Layan Beach wasn't so lucky. We used to kayak here before the hotel was built. The bay is so shallow it turns into mud flats at mid-tide, and there is no elevation to distinguish the beach from the sea or the flat land behind it. Tsunami's run up rivers and canals, and the resort's access road runs along a narrow tidal estuary reaching a mile inland, and that's where road debris started. About a kilometer from the hotel we found this parked boat.

By now I wasn't surprised when we ran into this scene another 300 meter towards the resort. You cannot see the ocean in this shot because we are still several hundred meters from the sea. The only access to Layal Beach Resort on this day was the narrow metal footbridge in the lower right corner.

Mountain-side villas, the front office and the restaurant remained untouched, but the spa, beachside restaurant and new beach bungalows were washed away. The bungalow addition was still under construction, but in that limbo state where some units were occupied while the others were almost finished.

The Spa was right on the beach, next to the beach buffet, an idyllic spot for sunset dinner. You walk past the Spa to get to the beach, but on this day I had trouble finding the footpath. Eventually, I found my way through the rubble. Eureka, there was the Spa! It stood up to the Tsunami fairly well, not a lot of structural damge but in serious need of an interior decorator. Spa addict Susan Teng of Singapore will be happy to know that with the Spirit shown by the Layan Beach Staff, the Spa - and the resort - is already open, The new beachfront villas will take a little longer.

The construction crew wasn't so lucky. Their makeshift tin and coconut leaf shanties were behind the new develop-ment - flattened to the point where the photos just look like a tin sheet lying on the ground. This was the only photo I took that even looked like a structure. Onlookers reported no fatalities, but the workers were searching for belongings 300 meters behind their shacks.

This shot really uplifted my spirits. After the Khao Lak temple scene, I distanced myself from the disaster, merely a clinical journalist documenting events.

But this shot exemplifies Phuket's Spirit. No mere Tsunami can beat us down. I'm not a hotel guy, but with one click of the shutter, I knew I had the power to help all of Phuket bounce back. It's the Thai way.

A pattern emerged. Laguna Phuket suffered minimal damage, but Bang Tao was flattened. JW Marriott, Nai Thon, and Laguna Phuket sit on sand beaches with just a couple of meters elevation. That was enough. All experienced minimal damage, something equal to a healthy onshore tropical storm.

Totally flat beaches with flat flood plains behind them all suffered serious damage. The National Park, Layan Beach, Bang Tao and Kamala easily accepted water that backed up onto even slightly-sloped sand. Layan Beach Resort climbs up a mountainside. A large island sitting across the bay forms the other side of the funnel, so the beachfront new development was blown away before it was completed.

Ultra-flat Bang Tao sits between Surin Point and slopped Laguna Beach. When flooding water looks for a home, gravity always wins.

Bang Tao was shocking. Around the point facing directly into the Tsunami, the elevated Amanpuri and Chedi took minimal beach damage. With a steep beach and wide set-back, Surin wasn't hit at all.

Bang Tao was a war zone. I knew before I arrived that beachfront bungalows were gone, but I was surprised to find the road behind the hotels so damaged.

Cars were in trees and houses, shops were gone and boats anchored in the jungle. A short inspection clearly showed the formerly picturesque hotel lobbies were concrete

columns and sheet glass windows. Once the glass broke, nothing stopped the water. Second floors were water damaged, but still there.

It was the same concept that kept the mosques in Aceh standing. Buildings constructed from concrete columns didn't flatten, but allowed the Tsunami to pass through the columns.

In Bang Tao, that meant the shops 200 meters behind the beach and the hotels took the Tsunami's full force.

Bang Tao Parking Lot Dilemma


After Bang Tao, I knew wide and flat Kamala would be bad. It didn't look like much from the Laem Sing look-out, but once we got down the hill, Kamala was really bad.


I'm not a fan of "Thai Culture, Las Vegas" style, but I did worry for the elephants. Set on the north side of Kamala, the wave reached Phuket Fantasea's solid concrete fence, and stopped there. The middle of the valley wasn't so lucky.

Kamala is famous for its flat beach, shallow mudflats and flat floodplain valley. The south end of the beach is single unit bungalows but a coconut grove backs the middle of the beach. To a Tsunami, coconut trees are the same as concrete pillars - no stopping power at all.

There was a car rental agency in the coconut grove, something like "Rent-A-Wreck" back home - nice cars, but second-hand.

Now they were Tsunami-hand, tossed, turned and tumbled through hundreds of meters of coconut trees until they looked like head-on train collisions or something rolling down a 200 meter cliff in the movies. Fortunately they had no passengers.

Unfortunately, there's a lagoon a few hundred meters down the road. The road here is a kilometer from the beach, elevation one meter above sea level, and the lagoon is on the mountain side of the road. Water level is sea level. Cars driving the road were swept sideways into the lagoon and sank, passengers and all. It was a messy situation.

Beyond the lagoon's hard shore there was a 10 meter thick ring of reeds growing in mud banks. After a mud walk, the lagoon was 20 meters wide with floating Tsunami rubble, to thick to walk, to thin to swim, impossible to find a sunken car.

Somebody saw an arm in the rubble, and an Army unit appeared. These courageous guys had the toughest job on the Planet, and they took it on as professionals. I cried for their courage, and again as I write.

Not into dead bodies, we moved on towards Patong. The road moves closer to the sea but concrete bungalows built on the beach helped slow down the waters. They were destroyed but the water stopped at the road, creating only ground level water damage.

On over the hill, Thavorn Bay was hit hard. Again, the resort sits on a low-lying beach. Its landmark pier is now famous because the sea sucked out before the tsunami, totally exposing the pier. When the waters returned, they totally submerged the pier - and then the resort.

Kalim foreshadowed Patong. There was ground floor water damage but these resorts will be back soon. But the Tsunami obviously left its mark, and the resorts look down on Patong Beach.

We stopped at Baan Rim Pa, where the deck was damaged from below. A two man crew had it back in shape by the 28th, and Baan Rim Pa was open for business, basically journalist teams staying across the street at Novotel.

Patong looked tough, but wasn't that bad. 30 hours after the Tsunami we drove down beach road, clean already. Although it looked like Tsunami debris, the yellow-hat work crew in the north end of the beach was cleaning up construction demolition. But when we entered the business district, the situation did not look good.

Patong's curse was not that it was hit hard, but it is Patong, the most famous and congested beach on the island. We all saw Patong's Tsunami on TV, but what really damaged Patong the most also took the biggest hit, the Beach Road shops.

From a planner's eye, Patong's beachfront was fairly well done. The Patong Cabana block was built on the ocean side of Beach road, but the rest of the beach was only beach.

According to the Phuket Gazette, there were 8,000 beach chairs but no permanent buildings, a row of Ironwood trees and a seawall set back 100 meters from the sea.

The other side of Beach Road is Phuket's most expensive commercial real estate, wall-to-wall stores, restaurants and hotels that suffered tremendous damage but serves as a seawall. Most of the dramatic damage photos were shot on Beach Road.

I met a friend who lives in Patong, and he pointed how high the wall of water got into the Ironwoods. The high tide line was about four to five meters up the trees, already two meters above sea level. A Tsunami doesn't necessarily break like surf, but it just keeps coming. It isn't steep, but it is kilometers wide.

The water went that high All that water was a big problem for the Soi's, Thailand's small alley-sided side streets, designed to access the shops and the beach. Narrow and highly congested, parking was almost impossible. If you did find a space, you kept it all day.

Set perpendicular to Beach Road every hundred meters or so, these cluttered funnels faced directly to the sea. As the relentless Tsunami boiled up inside Beach Road shops, the Venturi effect pulled sea water into the Soi's. The only outlet for the rising seas was to follow the current down the alleys like water through a garden hose nozzle. Unfortunately, even if one could swim with the mess, there were 8,000 heavy wooded beach chairs and half that many umbrellas sharing the ride.

The only shops even partially spared weren't opened yet and had roll-down steel doors. Enterprising shopkeepers who opened early the day after Christmas lost the shop, stock, customers - and sometimes family members,

The solid wall of commercialism was an effective barrier. Second stories were flooded, but concrete structures held. Frequently buildings built immediately behind Beach Road took only minimal damage. When we drove where the Cabana district is built on the ocean, the street was clear and shops intact, with water damage only. Only a few meters on, the Banana Disco and seafood restaurant took direct hits.

The worst tale in Patong was the Ocean Plaza basement. Two wide stairways on either side of the department store dropped downstairs, filled with a dozen shops and food market full of Boxing Sunday morning shoppers. From first floor up, the store is an atrium open in the middle, but the first floor was the ceiling of the market. Once water started pouring down the stairs, nobody stood a chance.

There were some humorous moments - we ran into Chai, a former guide from my old company, as we surveyed Beach Road.

We hadn't seen Chai in eight years. Now he owned a tuk-tuk. Cruising the beach looking for customers when the wave hit, Chai rode it out in his tuk-tuk Next to a speedboat hogging two parking spaces, Chai showed Amporn his scratches and took my picture next to his battered tuk-tuk.

Most of Patong will survive and return strong. Most structural damage can be repaired, or has already been torn down and rebuilding already. Patong's bad luck was (1) having a beach configuration that built up a dramatic breaking wave instead of a rising flood, (2) wall-to-wall commercial district right on the Beach Road, and (3) a name recognition destination at full occupancy with camera-laden tourists

For a day or two, it looked like Patong would get a clean sweep. Everybody prayed all the jet-skis had sunk, and Ronald McDonald discovered that even a steel door tastes better than a Big Mac.

The euphoria lasted a week. Technically illegal since January 1, 1999, a dozen jet-skis were back within a month. And Ronald will be with us forever.

Aside from McDonalds, there were humorous vignettes in the tragedy - the big bash at the Banana Disco the speedboat that thinks it's a car, the mannequin trapped in the rubble and my Soi Animal shot (Tiger Bar, Crazy Horse Saloon, bar flies), but there was no laughter. No matter how ridiculous the image, one had to consider the awesome force of Nature and the human toll.

Thailand's business law code is sophisticated enough to allow brand name chains to prosper. Since I rarely visit Patong, I was surprised to see the Warner Bros. store, but the Colonel is so prevalent across Thailand there's a new Thai word - KFC.

Looney Tunes was the only explanation Just like Ronald, the Colonel will be back

Location, Location, Location is being next door to the ATM machine. These sturdy and closely packed structures also served as a breakwater.

In Khao Lak there's a Navy Patrol Boat over a mile from the sea, but in Patong all the floating equipment ended up on the beach. Because of their proximity to the media, they became symbols of the Tsunami, so here is Paradise Harbor Patong.

Cut in half by a tree The Cassurina Pines (Ironwood) stopped larger boats from floating beyond the beach, and the Beach Road shops became a seawall keeping most of the Tsunami's power and volume on the beach. Once the waters piled up against the shop, and the sea waters eventually dropped, a tremendous backwash swept everything that could move back into the sea. These boats took many courses before they found their final resting places.

Patong's oldest entertainment soi and the main artery between the Beach Road and the Back road, Soi Bangla is a zoo in normal times. 30 hours after the Tsunami, the street was jammed with sightseers and rubble, yet the bars were already open, but without loud music, sloppy drunks and the girls were very quiet.

There was no doubt Patong was hit hard. The mood was somber, but optimistic. Everywhere, people were already working hard at coming back.

That's what got me into the Phuket PR thing. Every where around me in this demolition zone, Thai's lost friends, family, business, their entire lives. Yet 24 hours later they were cleaning, grieving, smiling - struggling to come back from the worst that Mother Nature can offer. As I returned down the back road at dinnertime, Little India was alive. Tsunami or not, people had to eat.

When I returned from my Dec. 29-31 overnighter, I called Michael about Leone Cosins, founder of Phuket Animal welfare Society and the Mother Theresa of Street Dogs. Creating awareness, importing veterinarians, vaccinating anything that moved

and turning the stray dogs at Nai Harn Beach into a positive experience that actually became a tourist draw, Leone lived right on the beach at Ya Nui, a 100 meter funnel between two mountains at Cape Promthep.

Leone was away when the first wave hit, but got a call from her house guests about the big mess. She rushed back to clean up her idyllic setting (that made me jealous) just before the second and third waves. Michael found her the next day 700 meters up the valley. She was buried while I was on the sea.

Amporn had the presence to take these photos while I was on my trip.

I didn't visit Khao Lak until January 20. Wide and flat, Khao Lak is the ultimate example of "Flat". A large Navy boat is "anchored" approximately two kilometers from the sea, stopped only by hitting a rubber plantation. There to protect Thai Royalty, the sturdy boat started its Tsunami wild ride while anchored a kilometer offshore. The crew had a miraculous ride.

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